Return of The Prince

Janet Daley  calls out UK PM David Cameron on what seems to be a ubiquitous political failing: the belief that being likeable constitutes political leadership.

OK, the UK Conservatives had to rebrand after Maggie and after years of artsy scribblers swallowing the Left’s characterisation of what conservatism is about.

But there’s no point in prime packaging if you’ve got nothing to wrap.

When Cameron swans onto the Letterman show and Obama laughs it up on The View rather than talk to heads of state at the UN, they’re pitching all-paper-no-present. It is shameful.

This is Hello! magazine politics: a branch of sentimental celebrity culture in which a potential leader’s personal life, marriage and ability to express emotions become more important than his competence, ability to make rational judgments, and relevant experience.

A more interesting idea is that personality politics and likeability are key when party positions are similar. They no longer are, not in the US, and not in Australia (well, we can hope). In which case likeability is no longer the feather on the scale of voter decision-making.

The overlap between politics and popular culture was not so surprising: political argument was rarely about the clashing of big ideas anyway. This has now changed: Obama’s White House is genuinely Left-wing in the European sense, and the Republican party is further to the Right than it was under Barry Goldwater. But the campaigning tactics have not caught up with this new reality – or maybe it just suits Obama not to acknowledge it. So it’s Letterman and The View rather than facing Netanyahu and the collapse of your policy in the Middle East. Hold hands with your wife and talk about your kids, and the country won’t notice the endlessly increasing national debt.

Bigger items are starting outweigh likeability, but party machines are still operating as if their policies are the same as their opponent’s, and as if a smile will make all the difference.

The outcome of the Romney-Obama campaign will tell us exactly where we are up to in this cycle. And whether, as usual, campaigns are designed to win the previous election, not the current one.

Contrary to popular belief, we exist in a time with little real conflict over real political ideas. There is a lot of noise, but our political leaders have not engaged in real political battle in a long time.    The coming global recession, overreach of media and government, and increasing suspicion of current pieties will change that.

Then, to rephrase Machiavelli, it will be far better to be respected than loved.

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